Monday, 30 December 2013

Prelest and Positive Thinking

Those of our readers who want to know why we’ve been silent may be pleased to see that we have taken time off from our current time-consuming project to answer an email we have just received.  There are a number of other emails that are in the queue but we have been too busy to deal with them.  We hope to get to them in due time.
Someone, let us call her ‘Martha’, has written to us.  We replied to her as follows:
Our policy is only to answer emails publicly on the blog.  We remove all information that could be used to identify you.  We also edit for clarity and style.  Is this acceptable to you?
To which Martha replied:
Sure, as long as you keep my identity private!  Thank you!
Here is Martha’s email, extensively edited for clarity:
Hi Orthodox Monk,
I’m curious to know why you guys are promoting the ‘positive thinking’ idea that your neo-elders are teaching.  Such as in the books
Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain
The Gurus, the Young Man and Elder Paisios
and the book Wounded by Love.
These teachings are nothing more than ‘New-Age’ and ‘Occult’ terminologies as well as practices!  They have never before been used by true orthodox elders and none of the holy fathers spoke about such things nor are they found anywhere in the Holy Bible.  To me this indicates that Orthodox Christianity is being blended in with the Occult, and thus slowly taken us away from God.  Are we not supposed to trust God in all matters?  Not our own self, and our positive or negative thoughts, given us through our own man-made power?  To attract this or that from energies or within ourselves (a power or energy that we do not possess) yet Elder Paisios claims that we do.  This is a demonic and completely un-Orthodox teaching!!!
Are these new elders in prelest?  Maybe you could shed some light as to why it is not only being promoted but encouraged for spiritual enlightenment.
And while we’re on the topic of enlightenment, here is my next question: why and how do all of Elder Ephraim’s Abbots and Abbesses obtain the gift of clairvoyance so easily?  Isn’t this supposed to be given (maybe) only to those who have accomplished great ascetic struggles in extreme humility, and only if God wills?  Not every elder obtains all the holy gifts or even seeks them, yet the Ephraim monastics work in a way opposite to this.  This is the exact same way that the Charismatic Protestant movement goes about obtaining the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Anyway I didn’t mean to upset anyone; I’m only inquiring so as to obtain true answers and knowledge for myself (I hope in fact that you are a real monk).
Asking you to please keep my identity private.
Thank you, and waiting for your response.
Let us take the issues one by one.
First we didn’t realize that we, Orthodox Monk, were promoting the ‘positive thinking’ that is found in the books that Martha lists.  Also we didn’t realize that we were promoting the ‘neo-elders’ that Martha speaks about.  Indeed, as near as we can make out we have made a serious effort over the years not to promote or to denigrate one or another elder.  Guess we weren’t as careful as we thought we were.
Now, let us run through these books to make sure that we’re all on the same page.  The first book, Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain, was written by Hieromonk Christodoulos who at the time he knew Elder Paisios was a monk at the Monastery of Koutloumousiou, a short walk from Elder Paisios’ cell or house.  We understand that Hieromonk Christodoulos met with Elder Paisios a number of times and that he took notes of his conversations as soon as he returned to Koutloumousiou after speaking with the Elder.  Our friend George who knows far more about Mt Athos than we do says that the conversations that Hieromonk Christodoulos presents ‘ring true’ as presenting the real Elder Paisios.  We ourselves have not read the next book,  The Gurus, the Young Man and Elder Paisios, and have no comment on it.
The third book, Wounded by Love, is the English translation of an early edition of a book called in Greek Bios kai Logoi.  That book came about as follows.  Elder Porphyrios permitted two of his disciples, now nuns, to record a number of conversations with him.  The transcripts of those conversations became the book in question.  So the book is really just the transcripts of a number of conversations or discourses of Elder Porphyrios with two of his disciples.  It is not a ‘set-piece’ theological work by the Elder.
We will discuss Elder Paisios, Elder Porphyrios and Elder Ephraim separately.
Now the first point to make is that Elder Paisios wrote a number of books himself, which are to be found in English translation.  It might be useful for Martha to find these books and read them so as to get direct from the horse’s mouth what Elder Paisios thought and taught.  Here is a list of those books (all available in English):
Saint Arsenios the Cappadocian
Elder Hadji-Georgis the Athonite
Athonite Fathers and Athonite Matters
These books are published by the Holy Hesychasterion of St John the Theologian, Souroti, Greece.  That is where Elder Paisios was buried in accordance with his own wishes.
There is also a series of books published by the Holy Hesychasterion of St John the Theologian that have been constructed after the Elder’s death by assembling on a thematic basis notes and recordings of sayings by Elder Paisios collected by the nuns of the Hesychasterion, who are the Elder’s disciples and formal literary executors.  While these books are certainly of some weight in understanding Elder Paisios’ teaching, they would rank second to the books actually written and edited by Elder Paisios while he was alive.  The volumes presently published are (all available in English unless otherwise noted):
Spiritual Counsels 1: With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man
Spiritual Counsels 2: Spiritual Awakening
Spiritual Counsels 3: Spiritual Struggle
Spiritual Counsels 4: Family Life
Spiritual Counsels 5: Passions and Virtues (not translated)
In the third rank would be books written by someone who knew Elder Paisios and decided to write a book about him.  Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain by Hieromonk Christodoulos, discussed above, would belong to this category.  Among such books, the best in our opinion is the one by Elder Isaac called Elder Paisios of Mount Athos.  Elder Isaac, since deceased, was a personal disciple of Elder Paisios.
It should be noted that when we recommend a book, we recommend it in the original language.  We have no opinion one way or another on the quality of a translation.  A translation is an interpretation of the author’s meaning, and in the case of a group translation, an interpretation by a committee.
Now let us begin with Martha’s criticisms, as near as we can make them out.  First of all, we were rather surprised to be taxed with teaching the doctrine of Elder Paisios on positive and negative thoughts.  We didn’t think we had addressed the issue.  Be that as it may, we understand Elder Paisios’ teaching to be as follows.  A monk or nun or layperson would come to Elder Paisios and express dissatisfaction with their elder, their abbot, their abbess, their spouse, their children, their parents, their job and so on.  Often, we imagine—we weren’t there—these people would be depressed and would want to ‘vent’.  Forgive us, Martha, but your remarks seem similar.  Now what Elder Paisios would say—as we understand it!—to these people is that they were allowing themselves to be swept up in negative thoughts.  What they should do, Elder Paisios would say, was concentrate on positive thoughts.
Martha thinks this is wrong, New-Age and Occult if we understand her correctly.  Certainly not to be found among the elders of old and not to be found in Scripture.
The basis of Elder Paisios’ teaching is to be found in a tradition in the Philokalia that goes back to very early times.  The great systematizer of this method as it entered into the Orthodox Hesychastic tradition is Evagrius Ponticus (344 – 399) but the method is also found in Neilus of Ankara (died 430) and Mark the Ascetic (5th Century), of whose works it was said, ‘Sell everything and buy Mark.’  The method is referenced in Diadochos of Photiki (5th Century) and other writers of the period; the fullest discussion is perhaps to be found in the Ladder of Divine Ascent by John of Sinai (7th Century).  It is an integral part of the Hesychastic program of Hesychius of the Burning Bush (8th Century).  It is referenced by the Gregory Palamas (14th Century).  So the foundation of what Elder Paisios is saying is certainly Orthodox and certainly taught by some very big names in Orthodox spirituality.
In brief what these authors discuss is the genesis of an impassioned thought in the mind.  Normally the cause of such an impassioned thought is a temptation by a demon, although Evagrius for example recognizes that people can quite often get on with a tempting thought without a demon on the basis of their own emotional tendencies to sin.  One of the demons is specialized for sowing thoughts of sorrow (depression) but there are other demons of envy, malice, rancour and so on.  And the demons would have no work if we didn’t have emotional tendencies to sin that corresponded to their specialties.
The best treatment of the emotional tendencies to sin and the evolution of a tempting thought is found in the Ladder of Divine Ascent.  John of Sinai’s treatment is largely based on Evagrius although he produces a much more refined analysis.
So basically what Elder Paisios was saying to these people is that they were allowing themselves to engage with tempting thoughts sown by a demon or by their own emotional tendencies to sin.  Since that was not healthy and interfering with these peoples’ lives, better for them to make an effort to think positive thoughts instead of the negative thoughts sown by a demon, their own passions or even on account of some biochemical imbalance.  (Since Elder Paisios on occasion sent people to see a secular psychiatrist he would surely have recognized the possibility that there might be an organic issue that needed medical attention.)
We ourselves would remark that there are people who always look on the dark side, always focusing on what can go wrong.  There are also people who always look on the bright side—the personal executioner employed by the late Ibn Saud, King of Saudi Arabia, was said to be a jovial fellow with nary a depressive bone in his body—and that is probably preferable to being depressive.  However, to make a serious decision it helps to be realistic, neither unrealistically depressive nor unrealistically optimistic.
Now this is our interpretation and we see nothing wrong with counselling people not to succumb to the temptation to think negative thoughts.  Now Martha is correct that for most people the only way for them to resist such negative thoughts is to pray.  We doubt that Elder Paisios would disagree.  However his point, we think, is that unless you recognize that you are being foolish in accepting to think such negative thoughts it’s not even going to occur to you to ask Jesus to save you from them.
Now for the rest, we do not know what Martha thinks that Elder Paisios taught that is so objectionable about inner powers and so forth.  We are quite sure, however, that Elder Paisios was quite Orthodox.
Now, as for Elder Porphyrios.  We are not aware of a similar teaching about negative thoughts by Elder Porphyrios, and certainly not in Bios kai Logoi.  What we recall from that book is a discussion of the eternal Church, Elder Porphyrios’ reliving of the Apocalypse to John on Patmos and so on.  Of course we could be wrong.  It’s been a while since we read the book.
Now is Elder Porphyrios teaching New Age and Occultism?  We hope not.  He was just made a saint of the Orthodox Church by the Ecumenical Patriarch at the beginning of December, less than a month ago.  So it’s not Elder Porphyrios any more, it’s Saint Porphyrios.
Next, Elder Ephraim of Arizona.  Martha’s complaint does not seem to be with Elder Ephraim himself, who George tells us is highly respected on Mt Athos, as having been a major factor in the renewal of Mount Athos by the disciples of Elder Joseph the Hesychast.  Martha’s complaint seems to be that all of Ephraim’s Abbots and Abbesses are also clairvoyant.  Too easy she thinks.  We ourselves have no doubt that Elder Ephraim is a holy man.  We ourselves do not doubt that he is also clairvoyant.  However, we have no information on his disciples, if they are clairvoyant and if so where they got it.  The statement in the Ladder of Divine Ascent by St John of Sinai, that it is shameful for an elder to pray that a disciple receive a charism that he himself does not have, says to us that if Elder Ephraim’s disciples are genuinely clairvoyant it is because Elder Ephraim prayed for them to receive the charism.  However, as we said, we have no opinion on the matter.
What Martha could do is ask Elder Ephraim.
Now what about us?  Orthodox Monk?  Martha is worried that we might be a disciple of Elder Ephraim.  Well, again, she could always ask Elder Ephraim.  For how would she know if we were telling the truth if we said we were?  Or if we said we weren’t?
We said all we have to say on our monastic state and affiliation in a post called Who is Orthodox Monk?.
Martha replied with two emails, which she has also given us permission to discuss publicly.
Here they are, again edited extensively for clarity:
[1st Email:]  Thanks for posting in reply, but let me correct you, Orthodox Monk.  I never said or implied that I was worried about your being affiliated with Elder Ephraim.  I only asked you to which monastery you belong (meaning name and country).  I did also ask from curiosity if you were under Ephraim (which you still have not answered).  Please do not confuse my words.
Secondly you made it sound like I was attacking the elders, which clearly I wasn’t!  If you read the books I mentioned you would clearly see where I got my questions of concern.  As for the Ephraimites I am sure you have heard all the rumours circulating about them, especially the death of Scott Nevins.  Now why couldn’t Elder Ephraim save his life?  And have helped him since he lived there 7 years?  That is, if Elder Ephraim is not in prelest?  Before you judge anyone on your blog or accuse them of criticizing, just remember that just because it didn’t happen to you, it doesn’t make it any less true.  I thank you for your response but obviously you are with world orthodoxy (ecumenism) so I expected no less.
[2nd Email:]  Also one more thing: There are many cults and false elders out there.  There is nothing wrong with people doing their own homework by asking questions to learn and to discern the spirit of the times.  If this troubles anyone then this is an indication that they are trying to mask something.  True Orthodox Christian people should be proud of those who ask questions and want to learn the true meaning of things.  They should encourage questions and not oppose them, and not expect only blind obedience to whoever claims to be an elder or even Orthodox.
Here’s our answer:  Martha, first of all, no one is obliged to read our blog.  If you don’t like it you don’t have to read it.  We have written several hundred thousand words on the blog (enough for a number of books) and everything is there for anyone who wants to read it.  Our views should be quite clear.  No, we haven’t given you a direct answer whether we are or are not affiliated with Elder Ephraim.  To do so one way or another would be to say more about ourselves than we care to.  If that bothers you, then stop reading the blog.
Next, of the three books you mentioned, we have read two; we haven’t read the Gurus book.  It was admittedly some time ago that we read the two books but we don’t remember any questions arising in our mind of the sort you are posing.
Next, no we are not up to date on ‘the Ephraimites I am sure you have heard all the rumours circulating about them, especially the death of Scott Nevins’.  By and large we avoid that.  Sorry.  In particular we have not studied what happened in the case of Scott Nevins and have no intention of doing so.  Nor do we intend to spend any time on the possibility that Elder Ephraim is in prelest.  It’s just not who we are, Martha.
Next, you write ‘Before you judge anyone on your blog or accuse them of criticizing, just remember that just because it didn’t happen to you, it doesn’t make it any less true.  I thank you for your response but obviously you are with world orthodoxy (ecumenism) so I expected no less.’  We are not sure what you mean.  Do you mean that we are criticizing someone else or that we are criticizing you?  Our strongest criticism of you was that you have a tendency to listen to your bad thoughts.  If it is you that you mean we have been criticizing, then ‘because it didn’t happen to you, it doesn’t make it any less true’ suggests that you have had some bad experience, unless we completely misunderstand what you are saying.  If you have had a bad experience, then we suggest you speak to a clergyman face to face.  A blog is not the place to sort out personal bad experiences.
Martha replied.  We will let her have the last word:
I did not have nor do I have any intention to read your blog.  I only wrote a simple email on the ‘positive thinking’ idea, which you took way out of proportion to my intent, in cold heartless replies.  No, I have not had any bad experiences and even if I had that would not excuse the fact that the Ephraimites are in prelest!  Moreover, there are many complaints about them from thousands who have had similar experiences.  You can choose to cover up for the wrongdoings of the Ephraimites but just don’t forget that people are not stupid!!!  The truth always comes out in the end!  And I don’t even believe that you live in an Orthodox monastery let alone that you are a tonsured monk, just going by your cold accusatory, assuming replies.  I am done talking with you!
Martha later sent us another email:
Dear Orthodox Monk:
I have realized that I made a terrible mistake with regard to my ‘positive thinking’ query and about Elder Ephraim being in prelest.  I did some more research and I have found out that I was terribly wrong.  Thank you.